Preparations for a nuclear test, seen by some as a way for new leader Kim Jong Un and the North's military to re-establish credibility, have been visible on satellite photos for several weeks, The New York Times reported.
"The North Koreans have tended to pursue patterns of provocative actions," Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One.
The rocket's failure also means the United States doesn't have to worry yet about the North's ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the West Coast, as the technology to launch a small satellite is very similar to technology to launch a warhead.
The rocket's failure also is seen as a test of whether anyone in the North will challenge the rule of the Kim, who became the leader of the country in December after the death of his father.
By going ahead with the rocket test, Kim either defied China, which had warned against it, or was overruled by others in the North Korean power structure, the Times said.
If Kim defied China, it would suggest the Chinese wield little influence on North Korea, the report said. If others overruled Kim, it could suggest a struggle for influence or leadership in the North, which is believed to have six or more nuclear weapons or the plutonium to produce them.
"Frankly, I'd rather have an unstable Kim Jong Un in charge than a free-for-all where you are wondering who's really in control of the arsenal," a senior American intelligence official said before the launch failed.